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So near, yet so far

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Summary

In a partly autobiographical sketch, V Madhurima reminisces about the time she spent as a Physics Professor in Mizoram University during 2007-2012. This essay highlights some of the unique features and challenges of being a researcher in one of the North-East states of India

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Figure 1. Road leading to MZU after the rains. Landslides like these are very common during the rainy season in Mizoram. This creates issues for transport of both people and goods. Photo credit: Author.

I taught at Mizoram University (MZU) between early 2007 and mid-2012.  Every day of the five and a half years there was a learning experience for me. The first striking feature is the geographical diversity across the North East Region (NER) of India. Technically NER of India consists of the states that exist entirely on the other side of the Siliguri corridor, commonly known as the “chicken-neck” of India. This nearly justifies the use of the term “mainland” by the people of NER for the rest of the country. Mizoram is an almost entirely hilly state, on the geologically young Lushai/Patkai hills, made of soft, muddy hills that are prone to landslides, sometimes bringing down entire hillsides with all the houses on them.  More importantly, landslides can cut off the entire state from the rest of the country since there is only one highway out of the state and air travel, to date, is dicey. This in turn means essential supplies including fuel, milk and groceries can run short. This is in sharp contrast with Guwahati, with much better connectivity or Agartala, which is on plain land, or Imphal in the middle of a valley or Shillong, which was patronized by the British for its cool climate and hence has better infrastructure.

 

Teachers in general are given enormous respect in the state. I have not seen any other state capital with “Happy Teachers Day” banners all over on September 5th, every year. This is probably due to the fact that for the most part, education in the state referred to School education. Mizoram University, formally established in 2001, was the first University in the state, prior to which it was a campus of the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU). The first thing that I noticed with the students was that the discipline levels were high. Also, there was a complete absence of questioning; something that felt ingrained in them.  Added to this was the common insecurity of students of being looked down upon by peers if their question was “stupid”. It took great efforts to make them ask questions.

 

Formal education in Mizoram was started by the British Christian Missionaries in 1894. The first government school was established in 1897 and the first higher education institute, Pachhunga University College (then called Aijal college, now a constituent college of MZU) started as late as 1958. A large percentage of my students at MZU were from the state and many of them were first generation graduates. This was in contrast to the situation across the state border in Assam at Silchar. For example, Gurucharan College (popularly called the GC College) there was established in 1935, and thus the students from there are usually third generation graduates.

 

In Mizoram, I realized that the Tibeto-Burmese languages were nothing like the Sanskrit based (Indo-European) or the Dravidian languages that I was familiar with.  I had to quickly adopt a clipped accent and speak in shorter sentences to be understood. On the other hand, in almost all the hill states, languages are often not understood even across districts. This reality meant that the students adapted themselves to new languages quickly.  Further, Mizo language, like other languages of the hills, is written in the Roman script, while the languages spoken in the valleys have recorded history of at least a thousand years. These differences gain importance when you notice that certain parts of NER have a history of books being written and read and the others relied on oral transmission of knowledge even hundred years ago or less. Although the infrastructure is markedly improved now, in those days, there were no book shops in the state of Mizoram, other than those catering to regular school books. Internet was running at kbps  speeds at best which meant we had to source all our books for professional and personal reading on trips to the mainland.

 

Teachers in schools and colleges were mostly those who were educated within the state. First generation students becoming teachers in a short span of about 5 years meant that many of my students were not exposed to simple pedagogical tools such as solving a problem sheet. Introducing such ideas was no simple task either, since the cultural and religious requirement of social work meant there was very little time for the students to invest on their own education. This was felt very acutely in the initial days and got better with time when the value of higher education and the need for many more hours of work for laboratory-based sciences was understood by and large.

 

The emphasis on social work by the youth of the state was reflected in classrooms and in research, albeit in unexpected ways. There was a certain underlying trust and ease with which Mizos interact and work. This is usually attributed this to their traditional code of conduct called Tlawmngaihna which expects them to be kind, hospitable and most importantly, helpful to each other. Among the students, this was reflected as strong cooperation among themselves.

 

There was this instance when the students refused to submit an assignment on time since one of them, who would not be named, did not finish it. When I sat down with some of them over a cup of tea in the canteen and asked them what was happening, they said that it was their culture not to rat out anyone and to bear the consequences of such actions collectively! That day was a day of introspection. In my previous experiences, evaluation of students was always based on the assumption of competitiveness among the students, which was not the case here. I asked myself if I was right in imposing competitiveness to a group that was so cohesive, if marks and grades were really to be valued above human relationships and if I was teaching them rivalry instead of learning cooperation from them.

 

Emphasis on social work translated to the students preferring theoretical or computational Physics to experimental Physics, since experiments needed longer hours in the laboratories. However, as an experimental Physicist, this was the smallest of my problems there.

The author’s lab in the early days of its set-up in 2007. Photo credit: Author.

Initially, the lab space allotted to me was 1.2 km away on the hills, with no local transport. The University buses would bring us in by 9:00 a.m. and leave by 5:30 p.m. In the meantime, I would take classes, attend meetings and walk to the lab for the research work. Almost towards the end of my stay there, we had residential housing and permanent department buildings with the labs in it. However, the research labs also came with pre-constructed cement slabs, like what you may need in a teaching lab.

 

In the initial stages, getting experimental equipment delivered to my lab was a problem in itself. Like most other smaller institutes, there was no seed grant to start research. It was slightly easy to get research grants under the NE schemes, but difficult to impress upon the panel of evaluators that all things cost twice as much as in mainland due to poor roadways. The number of permits to be obtained, hopefully without the addresses being confused, was large. The cheque for the first-year instalment of a major research grant of mine from a defence research organization was marked to MZU, Kohima; Kohima is the capital of Nagaland, a second nearest neighbour state to Mizoram. One can image the time and effort it takes to get a cheque reissued from a funding agency.

 

Once the money was in and orders placed for the equipment, one could only wish, hope and pray that the fragile parts did not get damaged on their journey through the hilly tracks. A single replacement would set us back easily by a few months. The ease with which one could get the administrative approvals for most part was what encouraged experimental work. I had two major research grants, and as the Principle Investigator, I was the financial sanctioning authority. The files would go to the finance section only for financial concurrence. There was an implicit trust that a faculty member with a PhD and who has been sanctioned a grant can handle the basic finances of their projects. This went a long way in reducing the time for files to go around and sanctions be approved. I truly wish all other Universities of this country would follow this good practice.

 

Figure 3. Road transport has always been a problem in the NE. Ensuring that fragile goods survived the journey was a nightmare. As with other infrastructure, roads are much better now, but the issue with landslides remains. Photo Credit: Author

Temperatures in winter could drop to 5°C. This may not seem very low, but when you take into account that most houses are not thermally insulated, room heating is by small heaters and the hilly winds add to the chill factor, it does become difficult even for those who are acclimatized. Maximum temperatures in summer were around 30°C (although they are seen to be raising over the last few years). This meant there were no shops selling air conditioners. Combining this with the high humidity characteristic of the region meant doing controlled experiments was a huge task. Very often, my research scholar slept in the lab to wake up at 2 AM to do the experiments since he found that that was the time when the temperature and humidity was near constant in one given period.  Moreover, there were no shops selling research grade chemicals for experiments. One had to wait for very long periods to procure them from outside the state.

In short, it took triple the time, money and effort to get a single research publication, especially in fields such as what I work in, namely soft condensed matter physics (SCMP). Unlike some fields like the study of radioactivity associated with earthquakes or studies related to bio-diversity, which the region was conducive to, SCMP did not lend itself to the place. There were no centralized facilities such as Search Results Web results  Sophisticated Analytical Instrument Facility (SAIF) centres, and my laboratory had only some small equipment purchased through research grants. Collaborations were imperative, but travel was difficult. Flights out of Aizawl were to Kolkata and Guwahati and were prone to cancellations at short notices. Road journeys were arduous, a trip to Silchar, some 150 km away, was a back breaking 8-hour journey.

 

One had to tailor the research topics such that the samples could be preserved for long enough to the transported to the laboratories of collaborators and the experiments done. Given all these constraints, I sometimes feel surprised that I was able to supervise two PhDs and 9 Masters project dissertations, all but two of the masters projects, in experimental physics. Of all these students that I supervised, only one was a woman. Mizoram is the second most literate state in the country, next to Kerala. All across the state, women are seen in large numbers in public spaces.  It was common to see shops selling household gadgets to be run fully by women, from sales to billing to loading. They are often seen with one of the many local newspapers in hand.  The society, like in most of NER, was fairly egalitarian with no hierarchies but with deep seated patriarchy. It was obvious to the casual eye that women were employed either in work needing physical labour or were mostly in the lower rungs of the jobs. Even in a state like Meghalaya that follows a matrilineal structure, men dominate the local governing bodies, which places them in decision making seats. Married women of Mizoram have got a right to their former husband’s property in the case of a divorce as late as 2014.

 

The situation was better in academia, but even here social mores such as women playing the role of hostess at formal meetings were expected to be maintained. Although a few women academics from the region have made a name for themselves, but the number is still very low. There is an urgent need for many more female academic role models from the NER to motivate younger women to take up serious research, particularly in sciences.

 

When I joined MZU, there were two women faculty members in the department, including me! The other person left in a few months and thereafter, I was the only woman across all sciences for a few years. Some of the women academicians I interact with from this region feel that they are much better off in State University systems compared to Central Universities, because the presence of men from outside the region in the latter actually brings in social restrictions that are unknown to them. In my personal experience, I tend to agree. I found that being a single woman, with or without a child, did not carry any stigma in the society and the only comments I heard about the same were made by the non-locals.

 

Another undeniable fact was the blatant racism that was heard in the comments of people from outside NER about the locals, very often within the earshot of the latter. It was easier to blame racially weak learning genes than put in extra efforts to teach first generation students, I guess. If this were the case with people who choose to make NER their home, I can only imagine the extent of racism faced by the people of the region when they come to study or work in the mainland. Integration of marginalized people can happen only through sensitization of people on both sides. Racism faced by them, coupled with incentives such as income-tax exemption if they worked in their home state, meant that the students were very reluctant to leave the state for either higher education or for work. Even if someone was willing to travel, it took nearly 20 hours by road to Guwahati. It was nearly impossible to motivate my students and research scholars to attend conferences and workshops elsewhere.

 

It took me a few years to understand these dynamics and the realization led me to organize a workshop on Computational Physics, co-hosted with University of Hyderabad, with speakers coming from very prestigious institutes across the country.  If our students could not go out, we could bring in the experts.  Inviting visitors not from the NER meant one had to carefully evaluate if the visitor would be tolerant to minimal lodging facilities in the town, to basic and local food, to the fact that the state was one with total prohibition, to accept a sudden change of travel plans due to inclement weather etc., etc. I was fortunate that all the people I had invited were very cooperative. I cannot imagine having to cater to a demanding person in that place, such as faced by some of my colleagues. Two experts had to be brought through a dangerous mud path since the main road was closed due to landslides. Accommodation was a problem. The University did not have a guest house yet, and the city hotels with limited accommodation on a normal day was stretched to limits due to a political event occurring at that time. The participants were placed some 7 km away, and hence there could be no interactive sessions beyond 5 pm. On the final day when I went to see off the last set of speakers/participants at the airport, I remember carrying two lakh rupees of personal cash to be able to purchase on-the-spot tickets with an alternative airline, just in case the government carrier cancelled its flight. This felt very normal then!

 

A lot has changed in Aizawl since I left the place. It is heart-warming to hear of much better infrastructure like hotels and restaurants, indoor swimming pools and basketball courts – things that we only dreamt of. MZU has also made a lot of progress. Over the lockdown period, I have been getting numerous invites to webinars being conducted by many departments with speakers from all over the world.

 

However, connectivity, medical facilities and school education continue to be core issues for the region. These reasons, combined with the inability of outsiders to buy property and grow roots, are the major deterrents for people from outside to work there.  Racism is probably the single major cause for the people from there not moving out. Investment in grassroots level infrastructure across the region is a must. Creature comforts are minimal and the efforts needed for every day survival are huge, especially for those who are accustomed to them. Investment into a good school education that does not rely on rote memory is crucial. While this may sound like an issue common across the country, the limited access to competitive events for school children such as olympiads, quality quizzes etc., makes it even more significant since the students do not have benchmarks to evaluate themselves and there can be no good higher education in the absence of good school education.

 

Special measures are necessary to promote higher education especially in states where education has historically had a late beginning. More experts are needed to mentor the programs, but the mentors must be willing to spend a considerable time in the region to understand ground realities. A few hours or days is not sufficient. For example, curriculum revision should take into account job prospects for students who in all probability will not leave the state, and the state does not have industries. One needs to have long interactions with the students to understand their learning difficulties and develop tailor-made pedagogical solutions.

 

Faculty members need incentives such as more opportunities for travel outside the region to network and collaborate with possible official frameworks for creation of national and international academic networks for them. This would go a long way in improving the quality of research in the region.  Further, evolving a metric that recognizes the amount of work that goes into teaching and research there will not only motivate the faculty but also help them in career progression. Students need travel grants. Students at all levels need to be provided with air travel grants to encourage them to step out and interact.  While students are allowed to avail air-travel, not all organizers of workshops and seminars have money to support the same. Books must be made available! All kinds of books. Not just in the University library but across all educational institutes including schools and also in the public domain. Presence of more women, that too in higher academic positions and positions of power will not only ensure that the existing rules go beyond the rule books and are implemented, but will also provide enough role-models for younger women to take up higher education.

 

Deliberate equity measures, sensitization programs and presence of more women in academia will be a good starting point to bridge the gap that exists between academic worlds in the mainland and those in the NER.

 

V Madhurima is a Professor of Physics at Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur. Views expressed are personal.

 

This article is part of a Confluence Series called “Under-represented groups in academia: issues and way forward”. The remaining articles can be found here

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1

Narratives like these need to be widely shared, discussed and understood especially if we were to be inclusive in achieving the goals of education especially in the context of the NEP

2

A very informative article. The culturally ingrained practice of collaboration and looking out for each other even in a professional set-up is pleasantly surprising. Something that has to be learnt by all.
The paragraph about promoting higher education is thought-provoking and practical. As rightly pointed out, this reformation requires significant and continuous effort in terms of interactions with the students, faculty, local governing bodies etc. Involving the locals in this decision-making process is quite necessary.